THREE-AND-A-HALF (DEATH) STARS

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wen­zel

Re­mem­ber that gi­ant plot hole in 1977’s “Star Wars: Episode IV,” the one about the Death Star be­ing far too easy to blow up?

Turns out that was in­ten­tional. In “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” we learn that it was se­cretly built into the Death Star by sci­en­tist Galen Erso, whose goal was to give the Rebel Al­liance some hope of de­feat­ing it — and the Ga­lac­tic Em­pire at large — to atone for his role in de­sign­ing the planet-killing weapon.

In “Rogue One’s” gloomy open­ing flashback we meet Erso, his wideeyed daugh­ter Jyn and, even­tu­ally, a host of rag­tag new char­ac­ters who help this first-ever non-episodic Star Wars film feel gen­uinely pop­u­lated — if also a bit padded out.

From the ab­sence of the brac­ing, yel­low-on-black open­ing crawl to the film’s re­lent­less speechi­fy­ing and whiplash course-cor­rec­tions, it’s easy to see “Rogue One” as a glo­ri­fied cor­po­rate brand­ing ex­er­cise.

It’s an en­joy­able, thought­ful and im­mac­u­lately pro­duced one that con­tin­ues the di­verse, for­ward-look­ing cast­ing of last year’s ex­cel­lent “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awak­ens.” But it’s a brand­ing ex­er­cise nonethe­less.

The real prob­lem for Dis­ney — which re­port­edly spent $200 mil­lion on the film and now plans to re­lease a Star Wars movie ev­ery year for the fore­see­able fu­ture — is that non-fans might care even less about it. If you’re not al­ready deep in the saga, it comes off like a flashy war flick that threat­ens to get tan­gled in its own nar­ra­tive turn­arounds.

Of course, mil­lions are in­vested in Star Wars, and “Rogue One” is the di­rect pre­quel to a film that set the tem­plate for the last four decades of big-bud­get Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ing. That’s sell­ing point enough for most.

“Rogue One” starts with a flashback to Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) at­tempt­ing to pro­tect his fam­ily af­ter Im­pe­rial Di­rec­tor Or­son Kren­nic (an exquisitely chilly Ben Men­del­sohn) tracks him down on a re­mote farm. Galen is cap­tured and his wife killed, but the re­source­ful Jyn es­capes to be saved and then raised by griz­zled rebel Saw Ger­rera (For­est Whi­taker).

We meet Jyn (played as an adult by Felic­ity Jones) again as the Al­liance res­cues her from the Em­pire’s dingy Wobani la­bor camp be­fore de­liv­er­ing her to the Rebel base on Yavin 4 — its lush set­ting im­pres­sively recre­ated from the 1977 orig­i­nal.

Given her parent­age, Jyn is re­cruited by Rebel lead­ers to track down her fa­ther and put an end to the Em­pire’s shad­owy new su­per-weapon. Along with Rebel lifer Cas­sian An­dor (a brood­ing Diego Luna) and wry, re­pro­grammed Im­pe­rial droid K-2SO (voiced with hu­mor­ous re­straint by Alan Tudyk), Jyn is quickly bound for the holy, vaguely Mid­dle-East­ern desert moon of Jedha. There she’ll reckon with her past, learn about her

fu­ture and pick up some un­ex­pected com­pa­tri­ots along the way.

The script takes pains to give Jyn choices and agency, and her trans­for­ma­tion from re­luc­tant cap­tive to leader feels earned. De­fected Im­pe­rial pi­lot Bodhi Rook (a wiry Riz Ahmed) and the blind-mys­tic Force-devo­tee Chirrut Îmwe (Don­nie Yen, in one of Western science fic­tion’s few meaty roles for an Asian ac­tor) add di­men­sion and in­ter­est to the other­wise thin, pret­zel-like plot.

It’s thrilling to see “Episode IV”-era tech­nol­ogy and cit­i­zens re­al­ized in so many gritty, hy­per-de­tailed ways, since chil­dren of the orig­i­nal tril­ogy (in­clud­ing di­rec­tor Gareth Ed­wards) have fan­ta­sized about it for decades. We al­ways knew the sprawl­ing mar­gins of the Star Wars uni­verse held un­told plea­sures, and Ed­wards de­liv­ers them. In­stead of drop­ping tan­ta­liz­ing glimpses of their ex­otic charms, he brings solid, un­blink­ing looks at hosts of new crea­tures and worlds. The spe­cial ef­fects wizards be­hind the scenes earned ev­ery digit on their pay­checks.

And cer­tainly, it’s thrilling to see so much gray area in a Star Wars plot. The line be­tween free­dom fighter and ter­ror­ist is, rightly, quite blurry, and any num­ber of par­al­lels can be drawn be­tween “Rogue One’s” story and ter­ri­fy­ing re­al­world events.

But given the prom­i­nent call­backs to stock char­ac­ters, phrases and sit­u­a­tions from the saga (hello, Stormtrooper dis- guises!), Star Wars fans will prac­ti­cally feel Dis­ney’s fin­gers in their wal­lets.

The real ques­tion: Is that sin enough to ob­scure the in­her­ent virtue of the lon­gover­due di­ver­sity of the cast? Are the gor­geously re­al­ized worlds and menagerie of alien species sturdy enough to jus­tify two hours of this agree­able off­shoot?

For all its high points, “Rogue One” misses the grandeur of the se­ries’ main arc — which helped give “The Force Awak­ens” much of its mo­men­tum and mythic heft. It lacks the sense of hav­ing much at stake be­yond the flee­ing emo­tions of its char­ac­ters, lik­able as they may be.

Its com­fort­ing sound ef­fects, iconic sil­hou­ettes and ex­pertly ren­dered bat­tles only oc­ca­sion­ally add up to more than pleas­ant time-passers with pre­dictable con­clu­sions. In fact, in mo­ments where the film recre­ates clas­sic char­ac­ters, such as Peter Cush­ing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, or the brief scenes with Darth Vader him­self, the un­set­tling dig­i­tal seams and strained di­a­logue (pro­vided in the lat­ter by orig­i­nal voice ac­tor James Earl Jones, who sounds ev­ery bit his 85 years) un­der­mine the grav­i­tas.

If the over­all so­lid­ity of “Rogue One” is a sign of Dis­ney’s qual­ity con­trol on up­com­ing Star Wars films, fans are in good hands. Ge­orge Lu­cas’ lame, car­toon­ish pre­quels are start­ing to feel far, far away in­deed.

“Rogue One” is bet­ter than those by a long shot, but af­ter the high bar set by last year’s “Episode VII — The Force Awak­ens,” sim­ply be­ing bet­ter than the pre­quels isn’t good enough any­more.

Felic­ity Jones stars as rebel Jyn Erso, who is tasked with putting an end to the Em­pire’s shad­owy new su­per-weapon in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

Rebels bat­tle the Ga­lac­tic Em­pire on the trop­i­cal, WWII-in­spired planet of Scarif in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Pro­vided by Lu­cas­film Ltd.

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